In Luke 22, we find the familiar scene of the Last Supper. In v 21 Jesus says he will be betrayed by one of the people at that table. Understandably, this begins a discussion about who among them could do such a thing. I imagine it probably got pretty heated. After all, guys like Peter were there. In a few hours he would attack a guy with a sword. He was not a meek person.
Interestingly enough, things shift pretty quickly in the text from the question of who among them is the worst kind of person to who among them is the best. Bear in mind, Jesus has just informed them that not only is there a traitor in their midst, but also that he is the target.
But this dire situation of the Messiah being betrayed fades from importance unbelievably fast here. As fingers begin to be pointed around the room at each other, the disciples need to justify themselves. Jesus said one of them was a monster. No one wants to believe it could be them. So it must be one of these other men.
And so it seems that they defend themselves by implementing a simple strategy based upon simple logic: The greatest among us would never do something like betray Jesus, so I just need to prove I am the greatest. And this is where the discussion goes. No longer are the talking about who is the traitor. They have moved on to talking about who is the greatest among them.
Jesus interrupts to remind them of a lesson he’s been teaching for years. They shouldn’t strive for greatness in the Kingdom. They ought to be humble. It’s “first will be last” kind of stuff. He even uses himself as an example. He’s obviously the greatest there is, and yet he serves. Peter responds by saying he is so committed to Jesus that he would go to prison and even death with him.
The back and forth would be comical if it weren’t so sad:
Jesus: “One of you will betray me.”
Disciples: “Who could do such a thing?”…”I’m the greatest”…”No, I am”…
Jesus: “Don’t focus on being the greatest.”
Peter: “Speaking of greatest, I’m so great I would even die by your side!
It’s at this point when Jesus famously warns Peter that he will deny even knowing him before the night is over. A lesser betrayal than the one Judas was doing, but a betrayal nonetheless.
And of course we know how things go. Peter sells Jesus out by that fire in the courtyard. The one convinced he was the greatest among the disciples turns out looking like the least among them (with the exception of Judas, obviously). His desire for self-preservation far outweighed his loyalty to Jesus. You might say that his self-exaltation, his belief that he was the greatest, led to his betrayal of the Lord.
I don’t know what all we should take away from all of that, other than to be warned about assuming we’re the greatest in the Kingdom. As we face the uncertainty of the world around us, it’s easy to point fingers at the brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing everything the wrong way. It’s easy to prop ourselves up as the greatest in the Kingdom. We’re the ones who will never get it wrong. The ones who will never let Jesus down. When that’s our attitude, disaster (betrayal, even) may be just around the corner.
Ironically, Peter would go on to be a very prominent, influential figure (and could considered among the greatest in some ways) in the church. But he continued to make big mistakes long after he was restored by the risen Christ (Galatians 2). Perhaps one way to remain humble is to remember that any of us are capable of betraying the Lord.
And perhaps the best way to remain humble is to recognize our need for a savior. Salvation is a wonderful gift that reminds us that we are far from perfect. We are not the greatest in the Kingdom.
Salvation also reminds us that the One who actually is the greatest stands ready to forgive and restore us again and again.
We needn’t elevate ourselves. He’s holding us up far higher than we would have ever reached on our own. That truth should humble us greatly.